On the 30th of November 2021, I – like thousands of other people – applauded alongside the people of Caribbean Island of Barbados as they swore in Dame Sandra Mason the first-ever elected President. Yes, you read that right. The first-ever sitting President in the history of Barbados is a woman! What a beautifully progressive way for them to officially start their journey as a republic!
This took me back to 2006 when Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf was elected Liberia and Africa’s first woman head of state. President Johnson-Sirleaf’s election expanded the realms of possibilities for young chocolate women like myself. While her presidency was a catalyst in the increase of female presence in political leadership.
The next time Africa had a woman head of state for an extended period was in 2012 when the former President of Malawi, Joyce Banda was sworn in after the unexpected passing of President Bingu wa Mutharika. Despite her qualifications, capabilities and experience President Banda’s swearing-in and term of service was met with a lot of opposition.
In early 2021, under similar circumstances to President Banda, Tanzania swore in Samia Suluhu Hassan as their first female President, due to the unexpected death of the late President John Magufuli. For the first time today, our East African brothers and sisters will gather as a nation to hear an official celebratory address from a woman head of state since gaining independence from the British monarch on December 9th 1961…happy Independence Day Tanzania!
One of the biggest issues causing major setbacks in economic development throughout the world is Gender inequality. According to UN Women, the equal participation and leadership of women in political and public life are pivotal to the success of the Sustainable Development Goals.
Africa has been one of the most proactive continents in introducing measures in favour of fast-tracking women’s participation in parliament. Currently, most African countries have at least one gender quota in place. These reserved seats have allowed for countries such as Rwanda who holds the highest percentage of women members in parliament at 61.25% and is followed by South Africa at 46.35%, Senegal 41.82%, and Ethiopia 38.76%.
“When a woman rules, streams run uphill.” Ethiopian proverb.
The inclusion of women in parliament, however, needs to move beyond just ‘ticking the box for gender parity, and desperately needs to incorporate substantive female leadership and advocacy for gender-equal policies that will go a long way in challenging discriminatory laws, increase responsiveness to social issues, and remove legal barriers to women to access services and economic opportunities.
We only have to look at our own country to see that laws alone do not change cultural norms. But laws are needed to begin the process of empowering women. According to the 2019 Women, Business and the Law report, Sub-Saharan Africa has had the most reforms in promoting gender equality in business, and reforms have continued in 11 countries.
While the percentage of women in parliament has more than doubled over the past twenty years, recent stats indicate that women are still grossly underrepresented in positions that matter most. If we do not rapidly change our systems, practices and policies to actively include more women at the political decision-making table the proposed Sustainable Development goals will remain just that – goals. In fact at the current rate women will only achieve true equality in 130 years!
“The Africa We Want is one where women have equal opportunities to participate in all levels of political decision making without hindrance, without fear, and with full support. Special measures to correct historical imbalances must be put in place to ensure that #WomenmustleadAfrica.” Joyce Banda, former President of Malawi.
So, what will it take for African women to finally reclaim their birthright and a political seat at the table?
When will Africa elect their next woman president? Will it be South Africa? Judging by 2021’s municipal elections, we have a long way to go and a lot of work to do but one thing I know about us African women is that we possess the moxie, determination, and grit to get the job done.